If one of the secrets to comedy is timing, then one of the secrets to comedy in poetry must be control over rhythm and form, those timekeepers of the reading act. Or so it seems from reading Erin Adair-Hodges’s deft debut book of poems, whose wit is supported by admirable formal skill and range, and which resonates with that undertow of melancholy that a candid look at our shortcomings can inspire. It is no wonder, then, that the opening poem of Let’s All Die Happy is a paean to the similarly wry and gloomy moods—and the impeccable craft—in the work, and person, of Anton Chekhov. As this poem’s first stanza reminds us, Chekhov advised that any gun a playwright puts on stage must go off before the play has ended. This is craft advice the poet takes by the end of her own poem. But it also an artistic credo whose phallic, and phallocentric, suggestiveness she mordantly sends up in her opening quatrain, when she describes herself, wryly, as yet another female fan “dreaming of his gun.”
Indeed, part of what gives Adair-Hodges’s humor its specific traction is how consistently she filters her topics through the lens of the contemporary female experience—a perspective keen to the all ways it has been shaped by the world’s often invisible patriarchal structures of power. Adair Hodges’s poems manage, time after time, to be both wondrously responsive to, and productively critical of, the forces that strive to seduce her. Her poetry often balances precariously between its speaker’s aspirations towards intellectual independence, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inevitable pull of life’s messy realities—most pointedly the infuriatingly superficial but deeply emotion-laden expectations to which women continue to be held. In “Domestic Geography,” describing her father and his “underwear / shirt and shorts,” Adair-Hodges’s speaker notes, “I am in training and must fold them. / The only time we are close.” And when the book’s opening poem, “Of Yalta,” moves to its second stanza, and its speaker imagines meeting Chekhov—her hero, her crush—she shifts into a complex apologia for her own susceptibilities, even while also exacting the revenge made possible by naming so succinctly the foibles she observes in others, too. “But the man was a dreamboat,” the quatrain begins, sending up her own longing as much as her hero’s urbane self-satisfaction:
gray eyes and smirking beard
and lips, those lips. The kind of man who,
were he now alive at the age he died,
would walk into the party, see me,
slide his eyes over the temperate steppe of my body,
then talk to my pretty friend.
Better for both of us then that he’s dead.
For a poem that begins with wry adulation, its characters, investments, and thematic implications quickly multiply and complicate. The speaker fires the poem’s gun herself, and she finds her mark (“he’s dead”); but who, one is left asking, are the “both of us” who are “better” for this turn of events? The speaker and the friend, since both are now saved from the heartbreak of Chekhovian seductions? Or the speaker and the man himself, since both are now saved from the awkward potentialities of their meeting? The half-rhyme of the final two lines punctuate the joke, but the slippery phrasing keeps its claim resonating with a very Chekovian ambiguity.
As with much good comedy, these poems often pivot sharply between the shock of immediate experience and the occasion of meaning-producing recollection—producing a double-take with existential interests. Describing the moments following the birth of a son, Adair-Hodges writes, with austere authority,
I held him, spent, and knew then there were no truths…
This is not poetry content to rest in the portentous; the poet follows this observation with the more radical empiricism of the feeling self, and the fact that the two beings that the poem introduces will continue to live their world-embedded lives. Here, the poem begins to tilt towards—but, thankfully, resists a little, too—an ars poetica, in which the child’s wondrously described breath-after-breath echoes the linked nature of the lines that form this poem’s tercets, as well as recalling the speaker to her own stream of art-making thought. For, although there may be “no truths,” the speaker concedes as she writes, there is still this hopeful, mindful stumbling to catch at some unity, to reconcile the thoughtless survival-instinct of flesh with our human attempts at self-conscious knowledge:
I held him, spent, and knew then there were no truths,
just lungs that labor to form a breath, each one
knocking into the next, until
long trains of them
move a body along, which seems to
Oh sweetness—I’ve looked for you so long. Body of my body, my
play at mattering….
This is lovely writing, alive, thoroughly thought, and thoroughly felt. In fact, the observations and inquiries structuring “Afterbirth Abecedarian” are so vivid and direct that I happily reread the poem a number of times before I recognized the logic of its form (and this, too, despite the poem’s formally telegraphic title). The pattern on which the poem hangs may be highly artificial (the first letter of each line coinciding with the serialized letters of the alphabet), but—once recognized—this form reads as neither arbitrary nor forced. One of first things American mothers teach their children, after all, are their ABCs; this form makes the poem a kind of primer, although less for the newborn child than for the mother who has just been created. The line breaks, too (such as “move a body along, which seems to / need explaining. / Oh sweetness…”) are consistently purposeful, opening up caesuras that underscore and suspend with a gentle self-mockery the speaker’s afterbirth struggles between self and other, body and intention, the matter of the world and the “mattering” of meaning. As in many of this book’s poems, formal patterns highlight (and even seem to enable) a fruitful and enlivening tension: between, on one hand, the governing forces imposed on, or inherited by, the speaker and writer—forces which often threaten to sweep her under—and those the writer herself imposes on her material, as an artist taking control and staking a claim. Adair-Hodges’s poetry shows the ways that such constraints, while certainly constraining, can, both formally and thematically, also be enormously generative.
Such formal authority is not all that gives Adair-Hodges’s work its bite, or that keeps it from lingering only in remembered feeling and image. One of this book’s most satisfying elements, for me, is its sense of genuine experimentation with alternate voices and kinds of declaration, and its generosity with the new insights that these experiments can make available. “Portrait of a Mother: 1985” begins with the claim, “First there was the word and the word was okay,” but this is not mere provocation. Here, Adair-Hodges puts her irreverent impulses to the serious service of building an emotionally complex mosaic-portrait—a portrait of a subject that in this case is understood, as the poem’s title suggests, as both an idiosyncratic individual and the quintessence of the maternal. As Adair-Hodges threads that word “okay” through the listed details of this mother’s life, its recurrences lend the poem a tone at once chatty and ominous. She milks that commonplace “okay” for all its many shadings of feeling—the varieties of compliance, resignation, resourcefulness, anger, and desperation that, despite our sentimental tendencies or have-it-all illusions, still organize so many experiences of motherhood. Such a technique shows that what might otherwise appear a mere catalog of domestic ephemera should also be seen to constitute a coherent emotional whole of fury and sadness.
In the aptly elliptical “Pantoum,” Adair-Hodges develops this maternal theme even more, describing a mother’s head as containing “a fist in the brain / useless save for the dark things it made her do”; like the pantoum form itself, this is a book haunted by inheritance, and by the responsibilities of trying to make something good out of what you receive and inevitably will pass on. Sometimes this concerns the speaker’s own feelings of fault, that “I can save my love / from nothing,” as when, in “My Son, the Nightlight, the Dark,” she recognizes her own “dark thing” tendencies emerging in her son:
…He is five and wishes he wasn’t
alive. The black claw
scuttles from its clamp inside me, peeks
from my throat to creep through his lips…
Yet this is a poet who also recognizes that any “play at mattering,” however trivial it might seem, is also life-saving, or at least life-maintaining, work. Such endeavors may be part American self-deception, but they also make the engine that keeps us going—as Adair-Hodges’s strongest poems evince. In “American Idyll,” the speaker remembers play-driving in the family car as a child,
gripping the finger-grooved wheel,
pointing it at places like a possibility machine…
And perhaps my favorite poem in the book pushes such a conceit even further, showing the way that even the most quotidian seeming elements of our existence can be understood as unpredictable “possibility machines” of their own: unwitting instruments in which all our fears and hopes, pasts and futures, live and can be gleaned. “Ode to my Dishwasher,” a poem far more affecting than its droll title implies, explores in direct and unadorned language the guilt and responsibility, the excesses and self-illusions, that the skilled observer can unpack from contemporary domestic existence:
For twenty years I lived without you
or the steam our love would bring
and in this way I was a little more
in the world or at least
I thought this sometimes
as I offered to the sink
a furious bounty of glass…
As if on assignment, the poem goes on to push this figure through its most extreme prospects of significance, exploring the dishwasher not only as an appliance but also as the speaker herself, and then as the new partner, who willingly “stands with his hands in water / to clean what cannot be loaded.” This is Adair-Hodges at her sharpest—finding a familiar form (the ode) and subject (“dishwasher”), and exploring and enlarging its meanings with each subsequent stanza, with language that stays steady and precise, and in experiments that never tip into the overblown or frivolous.
Heather McHugh’s poetry came to my mind as one precedent for some of Adair-Hodges’s concerns and tonal techniques. Both share an idiomatic, straight-talking, good-humored approach; both are adept at indulging and then undercutting, and yet never losing sight of, the poet’s virtuous tries at pinning down some meaning that transcends. McHugh, however, is more self-consciously brainy, and more formally mischievous; her jigsawed ideas, existential doubts, and sonic correspondences often lift her poems to an entirely metaphysical plane. Adair-Hodges’s poems, in comparison, remain rooted in the absurdities and comforts of a very specific, even narrow, set of times, places, and points of view. To Adair-Hodges’s credit, this determinedly local quality, like her formal expertise, keeps her work unsullied by the self-important indulgences that sometimes accompany contemporary lyric meditations—in which the poet’s ingenuity of observation and metaphor-making can feel like little more than posturing: a watch-me-make-gold-out-of-pedestrian-hay.
Yet the determinedly local quality of this book is also in places a deficit. The autobiographical material from which this work appears to have consistently emerged can sometimes feel patchy, keeping, for this reader at least, some the poems’ emotional and intellectual stakes a bit out of focus. The book is packed with hyper-specific references, but not all of them are excavated or explained as fully as are this poet’s explorations of motherhood, daughterhood, and contemporary sexual politics. Other touched-on elements and themes—concerning the father, say, or the issue of ethnic identity—are alluded to here or there, but in the aggregate remain underexplored. To be sure, not all books of poems need to be centered on a single theme or speaker, but this book flirts enough with such coherence that the outlier poems can tantalize more than they satisfy. Significantly, these are also the poems that feel most imagistically indulgent and tonally glib—where the comedic impulse feels more like autopilot than a necessary tool for the making of knowledge.
That said, Adair-Hodges’s work throughout this book remains brave in its aspirations, and bracingly clean in its delivery, offering provocative questions and answers without flinching away or merely doodling. A poem that begins in what could seem the mere pose of the casual (“I thought I loved God and his son / and all of that stuff / but I may have just like being good // at Church…”) ends, as many of these poems do, with the rawness and resonance of revelation: the speaker’s recognition of her own ingrained misogyny, myopia, and all-too-human tendencies to make myth out of her own shortcomings. She asks,
Would I still love Him
If He were Her—cranky and jealous,
redheaded and bored? But isn’t that God?
My whole dumb life I have loved people into leaving,
flooding my heart’s high school with a fire
I stand inside, alone and made of salt.
This final couplet, taken on its own, could be read as the prototypically adolescent cri de coeur that powers so much of the autobiographical-American poetry of the last sixty-odd years. But following as it does the searching inquiries of the previous stanzas, I also hear in that phrase “my heart’s high school” something closer to those metaphysicians Donne, or Herbert. These lines suggest that the self’s experience does not merely provide the occasion for confession. Experience, reexamined, also offers a higher plane—a higher “school”—for the making of knowledge, even though, like Lot’s wife, we undertake such retrospective work at our own peril.